Across the country, overdoses and crimes attributed to drugs such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine, and fentanyl are up. Heroin, once an exotic and expensive drug, is now widely available and reportedly as cheap as $5 a pop. Politicians, law enforcement, and the medical community are scrambling to respond. Media coverage abounds.
What is the reality of the opioid "epidemic," what are its causes, and what are its effects on chronic pain patients, whose demand for prescription drugs is often (and incorrectly) blamed for causing the problem? In this Reason Podcast, I talk with Reason's Zach Weissmueller, whose latest documentary follows a pain doctor who is retiring rather than put up with increasing government hassles and surveillance, and Jacob Sullum, a finalist for a National Magazine Award for his article "No Relief in Sight: Torture, despair, agony, and death are the symptoms of 'opiophobia,' a well-documented medical syndrome fed by fear, superstition, and the war on drugs. Doctors suffer the syndrome. Patients suffer the consequences." That story was published way back in 1997, a striking indication of just how long—and how ineffective—the war on pain drugs has been.
"Contrary to the impression left by most press coverage of the issue, opioid-related deaths do not usually involve drug-naive patients who accidentally get hooked while being treated for pain. Instead, they usually involve people with histories of substance abuse and psychological problems who use multiple drugs, not just opioids," Sullum writes in a cover story for the April 2018 Reason. "Treating pain medication as a disease vector, the government has restricted access to it by monitoring prescriptions, investigating doctors, and imposing new limits on how much can be prescribed, for how long, and under what circumstances. That approach hurts pain patients by depriving them of the analgesics they need to make their lives livable, and it hurts nonmedical users by driving them into a black market where the drugs are deadlier."
Sullum appears in Weissmueller's documentary about Dr. Forest Tennant, who is shutting down his five-decade-long practice in Southern California after being raided last fall by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Sullum and Weissmueller discuss misconceptions about opioid abuse, and they talk about how to help both abusers and patients in ways that won't cause needless suffering and pain.
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Audio production by Ian Keyser.
Photo Credit: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Newscom
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